Father: “It is so hard to get the kids out of the house in the morning, Freda and Matt keep fighting. This sibling rivalry is driving me crazy, but I don’t want them to be late to school.”
Advice from the Principal: “Put a chair in front of the front door, sit in it with arms folded and consider saying something like this: ‘I will not take you to school until you can show me that you are ready to work out your differences and be supportive of each other. If you are this incompetent before you even get to school, how do you expect to be successful in school?’”
That this advice sounds laughably extreme and never practiced proves that our culture is unclear about what it means to be educated.
Ask most teachers about the mission they are on and they will say things like “Give kids 21st century skills,” “Prepare young people for an increasingly diverse, complex, changing, challenging world.” Parents, also, are predisposed to such a mission and want their kids not only to be academically prepared but also to be “lifelong learners” who are “good at working with others” and “comfortable in their own skin.” Then teachers and parents go off to school and forget their mission.
The mission of Golden Oak Montessori Charter School, my new school in Hayward, California, is “to educate children to be active, aware citizens with the skills and knowledge to participate meaningfully in the diverse and challenging new century.” This is not a stunningly unusual mission. In fact most schools have missions like this—explicit or implied. But it seems remarkably hard for schools to hold fast to such missions.
One reason is that most schools and most people in our culture compartmentalize the intelligence required for good book-learning from the intelligence required to be high-functioning in an “increasingly diverse, complex, changing, challenging world.” The former are called “cognitive skills” and the latter “soft, non-cognitive skills.” This compartmentalization compromises our ability to teach all skills.
The mental work necessary for solving a social problem is not radically different from the thinking necessary for addressing an academic problem—reading the situation, describing the problem, analyzing it, seeing different points of view, communicating clearly, listening, creating a synthesis, trying again—these are the kinds of things educated people can do, and therefore what school is for. If we understand the skills for success, then proficiency at getting the family happily out of the house in the morning is obviously just as important as completing homework. It IS the homework.
Something I love about Golden Oak is the underlying assumption that cognitive performance, social competence, and emotional intelligence are intimately intertwined. The teachers understand that to educate children to be citizens of the world, they need to be citizens in their classrooms.
As the teachers come into school over the summer to unpack their boxes, set up their furniture and hang things on the walls, our conversations revolve around the culture they are creating. Academics are taught in community because all learning—solving problems, understanding phenomena, creating something valuable and new—is optimized when done in groups and compromised when done in isolation.
Golden Oak Montessori is in the friendship business, because it takes its mission seriously. The teachers know that maximizing individual success requires intense social engagement. Recess, cooperative learning groups, and practice at turning conflict into friendship are central to academic achievement.
Another reason we tend to lose our way stems from our understanding of friendship. It’s normal to think, “A friend is someone we like,” and “Of course, not everyone can be friends.” But if our mission is to prepare young people for the world today, then friendship skills are the most basic of basics. Being friendly to those we like is easy, but creating a friendship with anyone requires mental work of the hardest kind. Minds that can do this are not “soft.”
Yes, schools should “deliver results.” We would do well to start measuring results that matter.
Homo sapiens are a social species. We were wired by natural selection to make it in the world by partnering up with other humans, forming teams and organizing. Those who tried to go it alone starved, got eaten by the tiger, or bludgeoned by those-other-people-over-there. Our only hope was to stick together, and therefore, learning how to work things out with others was our main vehicle for getting smart. It still is.